Unicorns and Dolphins

In the last two weeks, I received a letter and postcard from my aunt, my mother’s younger sister.  Right now, it’s sitting on my counter; I keep on planning on taking the postcard to my school so I can put it on my bulletin board behind my desk.

It’s a picture of a unicorn in a quasi-jump; it’s body is suspended in space.  Tipped on the edge of its horn is a shooting star, the contrail spread out across the unicorn’s body.  I own a similar postcard.  Or at least used to own a poster that was the duplicate of this postcard.  I loved how the unicorn seemed to be posted on the edge of the galaxy, soaring through a universe of infinite possibilities.

When I unfolded the letter, gently pulled the postcard out from the edges of the envelope and my aunt’s round, beautiful handwriting, I noticed the yellowed edges of the card and knew I was looking at something that was old.  Flipping over the card and seeing the unicorn, I was immediately transported back thirty years to my early-adolesence, an awkward, unhappy, gawky, socially awkward girl who felt very lonely and very ugly and just not certain of anything.

But I knew that I loved unicorns because they were beautiful.  And they weren’t necessarily attracted to the most beautiful women because one of my favorite books of the time, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, was about a unicorn who ignored the beautiful and insincere princess but went to Molly Grue, an ugly has-been who was the lover of a bandit who was on the edge of incompetence.  And if Molly Grue who was a bit gruesome could be chosen by a unicorn, the last unicorn, then maybe there was hope for me after all.

I never got my unicorn.  But I had my dreams and all the edges of unicorns and pegasuses (plural of one flying horse) and even the cornisus (unicorn-pegasus) who inhabited all the corners of my daydreams.  And I had many characters of fantasy novels that spilled themselves out while I hid in the corners of soccer fields during PE or when I walked the track.  While the other girls gossiped about something or other or chatted about the cute boys, I was walking day-dream paths in imaginary worlds that were filled with all these wonderful people and dragons and yeah.

My aunt wrote to this incredible letter that I will eventually take up to my office and put in my desk with other letters that I have kept.

Because in her words, I realized that as much as I have saturated myself with my own world of ignorant narcissism that she has always known me.

One of the curses of being a military child is that in living in Germany and being thousand miles away from my family I never really got to know my extended family.  My husband has always lived in the City as have the majority of his relatives.  Family reunions are powerfully over-whelming because all of the relatives know one another well.  And as my husband’s and my generation have more children, I watch how everyone grows in undulating ripples of tight-knit relationships tempered by the reality of the busy-ness of life.

But they are still powerfully close to one another.

I know my cousins’ names.  But I really don’t know their ages.  Or their birthdays.  Or the names of their children.

And I feel horribly remiss because I have not taken the time or energy to stay connected to my extended family.  Not because I don’t care about them.

Because I do.

My childhood memories of extended family consistently return to Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago where my parents used to live and where my mother’s family still live.  When I was a little girl (pre-school age), we went to Brookfield Zoo, specifically to the dolphin tank.  While we were there, I was given a postcard of a dolphin, its head just outside the water, its mouth open in the customary smile.  I thought it was neat.

But then, though the portholes of the underwater section of the tank, I noticed a dolphin swimming in long, slow circles, its eye glancing at the people with their faces pressed up against the small windows that separated and created this environment of opposition and contradiction.  Land to water.  Wet to dry.  Human to dolphin.

I remember pressing the postcard up against the window, the picture facing in to the tank.  And I remember that as the dolphin swam past, its eye glanced over my way and it nodded its head.

And that was when I fell in love with dolphins.

Now, let’s look at things through a forty-year retrospective logic.  Likely, the dolphin didn’t see the postcard because I don’t know how clear its vision was.  And the nod, the acknowledgement that yes, I am just like the species on the postcard.  Let’s face it.  It was because as the dolphin’s tale swept into a downward stroke the head went up in a complementary action.  That is biology.  That is physics.  That is cold science.

But I was three?  Four?  And I saw a dolphin connecting with me, acknowledging me, seeing me and my little hand holding a postcard against the glass in a need to communicate that I saw it too.  And that the little bit of glass that separated us was merely a minor obstacle to enabling us to building a true relationship.

From that moment, I was truly in love with dolphins.  For the next ten (plus) years, I had one dream in life, to be a dolphin trainer.  When I was in Holland, I was in a dolphin show.  A year later, I was in another dolphin show. At Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

Somewhere in my office, I still have the Jacques Cousteau book about dolphins that my aunt, the same aunt who sent me the postcard and compared me to my love of unicorns and dolphins, gave me when I was in fourth of fifth grade.

I spent hours pouring over that book, reading pages and pages of scientific information about dolphins.  I learned about echolocation, the size of a dolphin’s brain, the average speed a dolphin can swim.  I was ready to devote my life to the study of dolphins.

Even now, I love dolphins.  When I was in eleventh grade and nearly failing chemistry, I knew that my dream of being a dolphin trainer had met its end.  I couldn’t do the math and I knew that in order to be a marine biologist I was going to have to do math.  So I gave up the dream of being a dolphin trainer and pursued the dream of being a fantasy writer.

Which has ended sort of.  I still dream of being a professional writer.

And I still dream about dolphins.

But, now, as I turn away from dreams and little fantasies, I realize that it is time to start the process of constructing the bridges back to Chicago.  Not because I don’t love my aunt.  Because in every letter, in every ink drop that created each letter, I saw her love for me.  A love I have done nothing to curry or develop or feed.  A love that I took for granted because I love her in return but become incredibly shy about showing it because I haven’t reached out to her like she has reached out to me.

Aunt Kristen, I love you.  I really do.  I haven’t been the best niece.  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I kind of suck at it.

And I love you.  I always thought you were the cool aunt because of your love of dogs and horses.  You were my hero because you could do sign language.  Even know, as these words and letters and mental sounds slowly seep out of my mind and onto the keyboard, I know that I need to spend more time showing you how much I love you.

You said that I remind you of the joy and free-spirit of the unicorn and the dolphin.  I don’t have the words, yet, to show you how grateful I am.  Or how I have always seen you.  But I have never, ever forgotten you or stopped caring about you.  I just was scared that I had hurt you by not showing you.

So I’m showing you now.  I love you Aunt Kristen.  I love you with all the true heart-felt emotion of a young girl who was at your wedding.  I love with you all the trueness of a little girl at Brookfield Zoo when I was four and falling in love with dolphins and again when she was in fifth grade and had just moved back from Germany was horribly homesick and we went to Brookfield Zoo and I was in the dolphin show again and you watched me as I tried to take the rings off the dolphin’s nose.

Thank you for sending me a postcard from my past.  Thank you for reminding me of who I was and who I am and who I want to be.

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